August 15, 2012

How I got my start in running - Part 1

The 1999 Amsterdam High School Cross Country team.
Yes, that's the entire team.
Coach Rzeznik is on the left, back row. I'm 3rd from left in the back.

A few days ago my friend Rob blogged on how a chance encounter / conversation as a 13 year old set him up for a lifetime of running. That got me thinking about how I got my start as a runner in a similar, unexpected fashion... and I figured its a story worth sharing... I just wish I had more old photos at my disposal!

Jenna (my sister) and I...
Somehow I look almost exactly the same
20+ years later...
I was born into a sports family, but definitely not a running family. My Dad was college basketball player, and while my Mom didn't play team sports growing up - she was athletic and competed in steeplechase (the horse kind!). When I was a kid, both of my parents jogged a couple times a week - it was all the rage back in those days. Dad still played in a local hoops league and Mom was an aerobics instructor (think Reebok STEP). We were an active family to say the least. From a young age I was all about basketball. By the time I was in 4th grade, I was already playing on a traveling team. From 4th grade until high school, I was probably playing about 30-40 basketball games every winter. During the summers I'd attend basketball camps and play a lot of golf.

During my freshman year in high school, I played on the golf team - but mainly just as a way to kill time after school before basketball season started. Amsterdam High School was a football/basketball school and I had an excellent freshman basketball season - starting on the JV team and then getting moved up to the Varsity at the end of the year. I was on track to do what I had been groomed for since I was about 10 years old - play point guard for AHS.

Then a chance encounter changed everything.

At some point in June of 1999, as school was winding down for the year, I was standing in the hallway near my locker and Mr. Rzeznik, chemistry teacher and cross-country coach, came up to me and said "Hey, are you going to sign up for cross country this year?" I thought about it and figured it would be a good way to get in even better shape for basketball season.

Looking back, I'm pretty sure Mr. Rzeznik actually wasn't trying to recruit me for the team. I'm almost 100% certain that he had confused me with Mike, my best friend. We looked very similar, and Mike had 2 older brothers who had run for the AHS XC team when they were in high school. In any case, I signed up for XC (Mike didn't!) and then didn't proceed to think about running again until practice started a week before school started in the fall. I spent that summer playing basketball 24/7.

Newspaper article from our first meet of 1999.
I'm on the far left.
Our first practice was a Saturday morning at the McDonalds on Route 30 where we ran a 4 mile loop. I was the second or third guy to finish the run. My teammate Jaime was a phenom - one of the best runners in the area (eventually we'd form quite a 1-2 punch). Within a week or so of practice, it was clear that I had some talent* for long distance running, although I knew absolutely nothing about what I was doing. I was probably running about 10-15 miles per week, which seemed like a lot at the time (now that's just a typical morning before work).

[*There is a story in Amsterdam folklore that when my Dad was in high school, the XC team was short one guy, and they asked him to run so they could field a full team. He was captain of the basketball team and this was his senior year. The details get murky at this point, and I've heard different versions of the story, but apparently my Dad ended up running and winning the race (or coming in the top 3, depending on who you ask... no one seems to know for sure)... wearing a pair of Chuck Taylor high-top basketball sneakers. So there is a distance running talent gene in the family!]

Snippet from my first race
I fell into place as the #2 guy on the team. As I mentioned above, AHS was not a powerhouse in sports like XC - we only had 9 runners on the team TOTAL that year (boys/girls/JV/varsity/modified combined). It was a small squad to say the least. We took the short bus to meets. That first year of XC was a lot of fun. AHS was able to field a scoring varsity team and after a 3-5 season, we went 7-1 in Big 10 league dual meets. It was quite a turnaround. I improved every week and by the end of the year ran a 16:26 5K at Saratoga State Park to close out the season.

My whole family started to catch the running bug - my parents started running local road races, and my sister signed up for modified track and field. My heart, however, was still attached to basketball. After another good winter of basketball, the AHS track coaches tried hard to get me on the track in the spring of my sophomore year, but I opted to play AAU basketball instead.

So while I wasn't "all-in" right off the bat - that random hallway conversation with Coach Rzeznik got me involved in the sport. If he hadn't confused me with Mike, and I hadn't started running (along with realizing I was pretty good at it and enjoyed it), who knows how the course of things would have changed? I owe Coach Rzeznik quite a bit - his encouragement and coaching fueled my early success and got me on the course to where I am today.

During the summer between my sophomore and junior years I actually did some running in the summer to get ready for cross country season. Our team got a lot bigger and enthusiasm for cross country grew. During this time period, I found that I was enjoying running just as much as basketball... and at some point during that junior year of XC, there was a tipping point where I started to actually like running more... and I was getting pretty good at it!

Jaime and I dominated the league competition, going 1-2 in every meet, and we finished undefeated in the Big 10 for the first time in school history. I improved my 5K time at Saratoga to just over 16-flat.

The 2000 AHS XC team. Our numbers grew quite a bit in one year!

I still played basketball during my junior year, but my passion for it had diminished. The day after we got knocked out of the state tournament in February I went out for a run in the snow... it was time to "get in shape" for track.

That first year of track (2001) was another case of not knowing anything about what I was doing, but I was lucky to have good coaches who brought me along slowly. I focused on running the 800m that year and got my time down to 1:58.6. We also broke the school records in the 4x800m, 4x1600m, and DMR relays. After we broke all those records, I "moved up" to the 1600m for the end of the season, and broke the school record with a 4:25.2.

I'm going to extend this post into a "Part 2" (next week), but needless to say, after that 4:25, my basketball days were OVER! I wanted to run further and faster...

May 2001 - The AHS 4x800m relay team after we broke the school record

1 comment:

  1. Loved reading this Jake! So fun to see how all the madness started and you really do look the EXACT same.

    When I was a freshman in HS I was required to run the mile in 13 min to pass my PE class. It took me two tried and I think I came in at like 12:56 or something. haha I though a mile was SO FAR. I think I had the talent even back then I just did not care and lacked the ambition. It is so incredibly interesting to me to learn how everyone gets started with running.